Shedding light on yoga

Senior teacher of Iyengar yoga Rajvi Mehta came to Israel to meet with medical practitioners.

Shedding light on yoga (photo credit: Courtesy)
Shedding light on yoga
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘I’ll quote Prashant [B.K.S. Iyengar] and say, ‘Yoga helps to cure what need not be endured and endure what cannot be cured,’” says Rajvi Mehta. This ethos has served as a guiding light for Mehta throughout her years of research, the results of which have put her at the forefront of the international yogic community. An established researcher and senior teacher of the Iyengar yoga method, developed by yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar, Mehta is the driving force behind a clinical study that has quantitatively proven the benefits of yoga therapy for patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease and other movement disorders.
Mehta arrived in Israel last week for a round of meetings with Dr. Revital Kariv of the Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center, Dr. Dorit Gamus of Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer and with officials from the Maccabi and Clalit health services.
Mehta’s trip was the initiative of the Iyengar Yoga Association of Israel. Her goal while here is to use the data compiled in the Parkinson’s study to persuade local medical practitioners to add yoga to the list of therapies offered to patients. Mehta’s research has already received notice in major international health care communities and has inspired the establishment of a conference in Mumbai entitled “Scientific Evidence of the Therapeutic Efficacy of Iyengar Yoga.”
In recent years, the Iyengar method has received an international boost. This is due partly to a broadening awareness of yoga worldwide, as well as the publication of Iyengar’s many books, such as Light on Yoga, Light on Pranayama and The Art of Yoga in nearly two dozen languages. In 2004, Time magazine listed Iyengar as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. At the age of 94, Iyengar continues to teach in his center in Pune, India.
As a child in Mumbai, Mehta accompanied her father to yoga classes given by the visiting Iyengar, or Guruji.
“My father used to practice, so he took me and my siblings along. We were too young to object. And then something kept us going with yoga. There was never a need to force us to attend those classes. My sister has been assisting Guruji since the late 1970s. She’s teaching in California, my brother is an engineer who teaches yoga on the side, and I have another sister who teaches specialneeds education, using yoga as a part of her approach. It’s a part of our lives, it’s a part of us,” she says.
One day, in the midst of her graduate studies, a colleague from the Iyengar Yogashraya in Mumbai informed Mehta that she would be teaching a class that day. “I started teaching, and for all of these years I have never been able to decide which is my profession and which is my hobby. For me, there has always been science and yoga. Both are equally important,” says Mehta.
Six years ago, when a local support group approached the Iyengar Yogashraya for Parkinson’s patients, Mehta immediately recognized the opportunity to conduct a study.
“They wanted to add yoga therapy. So they came with 25 people, and we began to write the study protocol. I asked them how they came to us, and they said they had found a website from a group in Israel that was teaching yoga to people with Parkinson’s,” she recounts.
Those practitioners are responsible for the whirlwind trip Mehta experienced in Israel.
They began by inviting participants of the study to train in yoga with experienced teachers. The participants were then evaluated using the PDQ- 39 questionnaire, which measures eight scales: mobility, activities of daily living, emotions, stigma, social support, cognitions, communication and bodily discomfort. After just 10 days of classes, large improvements were apparent.
“We saw a change right away in their digestion, mobility and activity,” says Mehta. For her, that data proved in black and white a truth that she and Iyengar had intuitively known for years.
“Being trained in objective science, I often feel there is a need for objective data to support the benefits of yoga, that we need to ‘prove’ ourselves. The practitioners of yoga have experienced it, and as a practitioner of yoga I don’t need to feel the need to tell the world. If I feel good and I see the benefit in the people around me and the people I teach, I don’t need to prove it to anyone. But, on the other hand, the left brain tells me that it needs to be proven because only then will the medical practitioners offer yoga to their patients. How can I expect them to accept yoga if I can’t show them this data? Yoga is a holistic science, it’s subjective and experiential. I always wanted to do something that incorporated both yoga and science. And I only really started to get into this kind of work with the Parkinson’s study,” Mehta explains.
“It is very challenging to meet with these doctors,” she adds. “I feel like I’m a messenger of this subject, and if I’m not able to articulate the value of the subject, I have done an injustice to the subject and my guru. This subject is a big part of our culture and our country. I don’t want to push this subject, but why not give it to these people who are also working to improve the quality of life?”
After meeting with several new prospective collaborators, Mehta’s hopes for the future implementation of her research were bolstered.
“I’ve been very fortunate that the doctors, for the most part, have been very open to this work and very receptive. They are also very critical of it, which is good because that’s what modern science is. We can grow from this criticism. I hope that we can make this into a joint collaboration in Israel. I feel that it should be a union of an ancient culture and modern science,” she says.